The Sacred Vulnerability of Ash Wednesday

By on January 24, 2023

When I moved from New Brunswick to Ontario to attend divinity school, I didn’t expect to find myself walking the halls of a Catholic hospital on Ash Wednesday offering ashes on the forehead for those who wanted them. For most Anglicans, and certainly the Anglo-Catholics among us, the existence of Ash Wednesday is no surprise. I was raised in a rural Presbyterian church, baptized by Baptists, came of age in a Wesleyan church, and educated by a nominally Catholic institution as an undergraduate and by Lutherans as a graduate student. I don’t know whether I was never exposed to Ash Wednesday or perhaps I dismissed it and said “not for me” as I am apt to do with many of our beloved rituals. Certainly we observed Lent, but I don’t recall Ash Wednesday ever featuring prominently. Somehow, I found myself, like most divinity students do, walking the halls of a hospital in a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) unit, an oft-required placement for clergy-in-training.

I came to my CPE scared. There are the obvious reasons to be afraid of CPE in a major hospital, not to mention my particular fears. For one, I’m afraid of hospitals, and let’s not forget to mention the seemingly insurmountable task of hospital chaplaincy. How do you meet people in their most vulnerable moments, during the worst days, weeks, and years of their lives? And how do you do that, all while you’re a student, learning on the job, so-to-speak? I was not just learning how to accompany people through grief, or the particular liturgical preferences of the hospital and the spiritual care department. I was learning how to claim my space and discover what I could offer, however meekly, that might help someone get through another day. Perhaps a smile, a conversation, a prayer or a poem from my beloved Mary Oliver, or just a listening ear that happened to be available at just the right time. I was learning how to greet come-what-may.

And so, in the midst of a devastating global pandemic, I found myself donning my protective equipment, once again walking the halls of a hospital that had begun to scare me less and less each day. Ash Wednesday, as you might expect, is a big deal in a Catholic hospital. On my best days, I’m not much for liturgies and rituals, which is to say that I’m too impatient to let them begin to work on me. But for this Ash Wednesday, after months of walking hospital halls feeling as though I had nothing to offer, I finally did. Ash Wednesday was not mine to offer, but equipped with ashes and prayers, for those patients who wanted to participate, I could offer something which was already theirs.

There is a power imbalance in all helping professions, but certainly in hospital chaplaincy. Not only is there an imbalance of power due to the caregiver/ care recipient relationship, but there’s an imbalance due to spiritual authority. Regardless of whether it is real or perceived authority, people have a sense that you have answers to questions, that you have God figured out. There is always an imbalance because you’re dealing with people’s perceptions and projections on you, of their beloved memories of the parish priest of their childhood, the religious and spiritual trauma that caused them to leave faith behind, or the unfamiliarly with faith and distrust of organized religion.

On Ash Wednesday, these differences seemed to fade away, and in all our inequalities we were equal in this: we were scared. We were all feeling vulnerable, even those having good days, who were nearing a return to good health. Room by room, I meekly offered a prayer I was only somewhat familiar with, and ashes on the forehead that I didn’t completely understand. In my vulnerability, as I had tried to meet my patients in theirs, they now met me. Room by room, the liturgy drew me in, and those haunting words worked on me as they worked on those who received them: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

To observe Ash Wednesday is to observe vulnerability, to confront our end, and to submit to our own mortality and failings. To offer a reminder of this mortality in a hospital, where the shadow of death looms starkly, seems at best, pointless, and at worst, adding insult to injury. And yet, having ashes crossed on their forehead was a holy and welcomed thing for most patients. That Ash Wednesday was a release of responsibility, and a welcoming of a new task, one of witnessing. I was never the great healer, and on that Ash Wednesday I finally gave into that reality, and I was able to give myself to witnessing the Holy coming amongst us, room by room, prayer by prayer, ash by ash, as each one of us was reminded of our origin and in whom our end lies. To observe Ash Wednesday is to stand as a witness, to make one’s body a sign pointing beyond one’s self.

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